Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
28th of February
‘In all they do, [the righteous] prosper’ while ‘the way of the wicked will perish’. (Psalm 1:3, 6) So says the very first psalm in the Psalter, the introduction to all the psalms that follow.
‘I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.’ Thus writes the psalmist in psalm 37. (Psalm 37:25)
‘The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you. The Lord will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings. You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow. The Lord will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom—if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God.’ So the Book of Deuteronomy tells the people. (Deuteronomy 28:11-14)
It is such an attractive theology! God gives people what they deserve. The righteous prosper; the wicked don’t. The rich are wealthy because they have obeyed God; the poor are poor because they have squandered what God has given them.
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ God told Moses on Mount Sinai. (Exodus 34:6-7) This is a theology that can offer an explanation for why bad things happen. Illness and death result from our iniquities. They are not random, they are sent to us as punishment. Even if suffering children are innocent themselves, their parents or grandparents may have sinned, and that is why they suffer. It is a theology that makes sense of the universe.
This is an attractive theology not just for those who are healthy and prosperous and can pride themselves on being rewarded by God. It can be an attractive theology for those who are poor and suffering, because it gives them a sense of control. If God is punishing them for their sins, then if they stop sinning they will no longer be punished! They are not the victim of random forces; and their rescue is in their own hands. It is no wonder that the ‘prosperity gospel’ can be as popular among the world’s poor as among the rich.
Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is a retort to the prosperity gospel. Some people tell Jesus about Galileans who have been killed in a particularly appalling way. Pilate has mingled their blood with their sacrifices. From Jesus’ response to this, it appears the people who told him about it were assuming that the Galileans had somehow done something to deserve their fate. After all, the righteous prosper while the wicked perish; God does not clear the guilty. If there is an effect, there must be a cause, and if the effect is untimely death, then the cause must be human wickedness.
Jesus does not agree with this popular explanation of the way the universe works. He turns the assumptions of those present back on them: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?’ ‘Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?’ We may want to live in a cause-and-effect universe, in a world in which people get what’s coming to them, but we don’t. Christians recognise that we live in a world in which, sadly, bad things do happen to good people and the wicked are not necessarily punished. We know this particularly because Jesus was executed on a cross, a most degrading punishment. There is no karma in Christianity; instead there is a recognition that sometimes the innocent suffer. And so in today’s reading Jesus challenges the popular Deuteronomic theology that asserted that suffering is caused by human sin.
Because this is true, because bad things may happen at any time, Jesus uses the death of the Galileans killed by Pilate to warn those around him. Death is always close to us. It can happen at any time and in any way, whether by the actions of a tyrannical ruler or by a sudden disaster. Those of us in twenty-first century Australia are much less likely to be murdered by a violent governor; in fact I think we can say with absolute certainty that none of us here will die that way. But death can still come quickly and unexpectedly, by illness or accident, and in that case we may have no time to repent, to turn to God set our affairs in order. And so Jesus warns those around him: ‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ Jesus is on his way to his own death, he knows that his time is almost up, and he warns those around him to be prepared; for their time may come at any moment, too.
To emphasise the importance of repentance, Jesus tells a parable of a fig tree. This parable echoes the complaints of the Lord according to the prophet Isaiah; he tended a vineyard and yet it yielded only wild grapes, ‘he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ (Isaiah 5:7), and so he stopped caring for the vineyard and made it a wasteland. Similarly, the prophet Micah compared his search for justice to a search for fruit: ‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered, after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’ (Micah 7:1) Now Jesus tells of another tree that is not bearing fruit.
The interesting thing about this somewhat scary parable is that the fig tree is not immediately cut down. It has been a useless tree for three years, and yet it is given a fourth year in which to pull itself together and bear fruit. More than that, it is given every opportunity to bear fruit – the gardener is going to dig around it and fertilise it before finally giving up on it. In Isaiah’s parable the Lord says: ‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.’ In Jesus’ parable the owner of the fig tree also wants to cut his fig tree down, but the gardener persuades him to give it one more chance. God’s judgement is tempered by God’s mercy, a message that is repeated throughout Luke’s gospel.
Throughout Luke’s gospel we are reassured that we can rely on God’s mercy, but this season of Lent reminds us not to rely on it to the exclusion of repentance. Lent is a season of penitence; a time for us to examine our lives to see if we are barren or fruitful trees. And it is probably no accident that the gardener in Jesus’ parable is so specific in his plans for the barren fig-tree: ‘I [will] dig round it and put manure on it’. We can be fairly certain that the mention of manure is a pointer towards our need for humility. There are many Bible versions that translate the Greek word koprian as fertiliser, but they’re being overly delicate. Koprian means manure or, as the King James Version puts it, dung. Our repentance will not always be pleasant. Sometimes it may be profoundly unpleasant and even a bit smelly. But just as manure is healthy for fig-trees, so repentance is healthy for us.
Jesus’ warning to those around him is ‘Repent or you will die just as the Galileans and the eighteen who died at Siloam died’. But having got their attention and challenged their prosperity gospel, his parable gives a more gentle message. God’s mercy is greater even than God’s justice. We know this, because we are with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem; walking with the Son of God towards the cross where we will see just how much God loves us. God’s love for us will not preserve us from being dug round and manured, nor does it mean that we will prosper and be preserved from all harm. But God’s love is always with us, no matter what we are experiencing. God loves us even when we are barren fig-trees; as Paul wrote: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8) And it is God’s love that enables us to bear fruit that will last. (John 15:16) So let us do that this Lent. Let us become fruitful fig-trees, even if it takes a bit of manure to get us there. Amen.